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A Batch of Word Soup

An Interview with Catherine Landis

by Pam Kingsbury

Catherine Landis possesses the rare gift of balance. A fine novelist -- her works have been praised for their intelligence, compassion, and grace -- she also found time to campaign in this year's presidential election and is active as a volunteer in her community. A wife and mother, she protects her family's privacy, separating herself from her writer's persona.

Her conversation, like her novels Some Days There’s Pie and Harvest, is articulate, thoughtful, smart, sensible, and sensitive. Dedicated to her craft, Landis creates characters reminiscent of long last family members and friends. If, as Landis says, writing is "like making soup," reading her writing is like eating a
good soup in that the reader feels nourished and satisfied afterwards.  

Where are you from?

I was born in Birmingham. We only lived there two years. I grew up in Chattanooga. After college, I lived several places. I followed my husband while he was finding a permanent job. We lived in eastern North Carolina; Lexington, Kentucky; and Augusta, Georgia. We've lived in Knoxville for the last seventeen years. It's "home." 
Where did you attend college?
I was in the second graduating class of women at Davidson College in North Carolina. I was also the first woman editor of the college newspaper. I thought nothing about it. We were young and it was "just what we did." There had never been women.... I sort of forgot we were groundbreaking. We felt so welcomed. We assimilated easily.

The professors treated us as if they could not wait to have us there. 

Talk about writing with historical sources.
I'm not the best researcher and it's not the most fun for me. In school, I was always the student who got more from the teachers than the books.
I was helped more by talking to people, than what I read at the library.
TVA's Ted Nelson made the books come alive for me. He was also able to give me these books of reports written by TVA relocation workers.  I did not want to use the story of any one person; I simply used them to get a flavor of what their lives were like.  One of the people interviewed used the phrase, "another THINK coming," which was something my grandmother, who was from Texas, said. It sounded so right for the book. I was glad to know that people in Appalachia used the phrase as well.

Some of the people interviewed were not unhappy about moving.
A friend with lots of relatives told me stories about women who could douse waters and who claimed to heal burns or the thrash in a baby's mouth. Somebody in her family burned up when the dress she was wearing caught fire.
Writing is like making soup. You throw it all in and make something new.
When I was writing, people would ask, "What is your book about?" All I had to do was mention the influence or impact of TVA and people would grab me with breathless urgency. They told me, "I hope you've told my story." The idea has a deeply personal resonance. I had no idea. None.
When I started the book, my whole focus was Leda and Daniel, but the story was not complete until I added Arliss and gave him a voice.  

In researching, I read more than I could put in the book.  There's so much more to be written about the time when TVA was building all the dams.  Back then, there were two schools of thought about what they were doing, some having a more Utopian vision for social change, and others simply wanting to tame the rivers.  I don't think we've finished that argument in this country even today.  
What is the significance of place in your work?
At the Southern Festival of Books, I was on a panel with five other writers and our topic was place. I started laughing because everything is place.

One of the themes in both your novels seems to be change or upward mobility....
I've never thought about the similarities and differences. They came about so differently.
With Harvest, I was writing about the how people deal with change, the effects of change.
I've thought a great deal about the differences in class, how people are judged by class. Who they are. What they do. The ways they try to get away from their class and strive to cover up their background and the heartache that comes with that. Class is a fact of life.... there's an inherent unfairness.
Ruth (from Some Days There's Pie) and Daniel (from Harvest) both try to get away from their class. Daniel is ashamed of who he was. Daniel never seems to learn. He got right into his life.... moved into the upper class around nine.
Ruth was always left out, never assimilated.
Daniel got there and stayed there. He betrayed allegiances.

Is there any chance you'll write a sequel to HARVEST?
It took a long time to write Harvest, four or five years. I was trying hard to make the characters become real people rather than using the characters to move the plot along.
When I close the book, I'm done. It's so nice when readers embrace characters. But the world becomes totally different and I can't go back there again.
I did have an image of Leda parking outside a house where they clearly used to live. In the image, Leda and Susan are older women driving back into the subdivision of what used to be the farm. They are remembering. Andy and Hannah have grown up. Hannah's a doctor....

How do you feel about the Appalachian label?
Ron Rash, Silas House, and I converged at the same time. Our work deals with the land, the Appalachian ties to the land, and the different aspects of the land. Preserving the land. The role of the land and what it means to the
Where I'm not going to converge is that my writing is more Southern than Appalachian.
Some Days There's Pie was embraced as a women's book, which is a labeling, marketing niche. Women can and do read serious books.
Who are your favorite authors?
Besides Shakespeare? Right now, there's Jose Saramago, the Portuguese novelist who won the Nobel Prize. I love the craft of Ian McEwan amd Carol Shields.
I read a ton of nonfiction. I have about twenty books in my pile.
I loved Wendell Berry's The Wild Birds and Bailey White's short stories. She's a complete master. Her work knocks me out.... There are so many books I could just go on and on....
What's your next book?
It's going to deal with the injustice of the judicial system.... There's a strong woman protagonist with a strong voice. She's educated. She's a high school librarian. Librarians of the world can rejoice. She's a hero.
What would you still like to be asked or like to say about writing?
Just that I like to hone back into this notion that writing, to me, has no shortcuts. It can be an extremely frustrating endeavor. It can be lonely. The exhilaration I feel when I have an idea.... when I can convey an idea through language is unlike any experience in life. Writing takes dogged persistence.
What's your idea of the perfect day?
I'm pretty simple. I'd probably go ahead and get up early -- we'd be on the beach -- I'd take a long run. I love to work so there would be work to do. I'd have dinner with my family -- my children, my husband, and my parents. Then we'd play cards and go outside to look at the stars. I'd end the day by reading until I had to go to bed.

By Catherine Landis
Thomas Dunne Books, 2004
Hardcover, $23.95 (338 pages)
ISBN: 0-312-28723-2

      Southern Scribe Review





Some Days There's Pie
By Catherine Landis
St. Martin's Press/Griffin Edition, 2003
Trade Paper, $12.95 (291 pages)
ISBN: 0-312-30929-5
       Southern Scribe Review




© 2004, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved